Epigrams for Antinous
He is around 25 years old, and his name is Lucius Commodus. He
is quite handsome, and a very fine dresser, and there is no doubt
in my mind that he knows it perfectly well. He walks grandly, with
a bold gait that drums the assurance of place and title. He is a
former favourite of the Emperor – twice removed from the current
Corinthus. And yet it is clear to all that he still commands a place
at Hadrian’s table.
He arrived at the stables in a great fanfare of attention and
jumped to the ground before even his horse could be settled. Off
he strode toward the halls without so much as a word to his slaves,
who quietly began to assemble his baggage and transport the lot
of it to his awaiting chamber. None of them noticed, however, when
a lone book fell from the saddle bag whilst it was being untied.
It lay still upon the ground when his servants departed to find
their master, and I only discovered the orphan book in the quiet
aftermath several minutes later. I instantly deduced its owner,
and alerted Anaxamenos. Anaxamenos told me to take it to Florentius,
which I did, explaining how and where I found it. Florentius was
keen to see it restored, but was also in the midst of instructing
some workmen on the repair of a wall, and thus ordered me to fulfill
the mission myself. Off, then, to the palace I ventured in search
of Lucius Commodus.
goes without saying that at the first available empty corridor I
dashed into hiding and opened the little book to see what it revealed.
It was written in Latin, and its author was one by the name of Valerius
Martialis. The volume was entitled “Epigrams II,” and
there was a hearty collection of them. I was excited, for I had
been previously and briefly exposed to this Martialis from Gryllus,
and remember thinking that I wished to know more of the man’s
work. Gryllus had told me that the poems were deemed base by a great
many official tongues but were widely enjoyed in the private parlours
of Rome. In fact, he had once even read to me a few of them, and
I was amazed to find myself laughing with him despite the simultaneous
horror at how quickly such laughter had transgressed the bounds
Thus I found myself once again in awe of both the writer’s
fearlessness and my own lack of restraint, as I shamelessly devoured
verse upon verse, agape with wonder, joy and the instant stiffening
in my loins. There were many obscenities in them; many disgusts.
And yet now, with the words spread out and laid bare (like a woman!)
before me, there was also the occasional glimpse of beauty cloaked
in a veil of sadness; a deep desire for so much more than Martialis'
own, hungry life could afford to mete out on a daily basis. When
he wrote of souls debased – of acts and words both hypocritical
and cowardly – there seemed to whimper beneath his open and
brazen disdain the private prayer for a world more perfect and golden;
a desperate need for love and compassion; a lament for the lost
race of pure and honourable heroes. O Lysicles, I was smitten! Here
was a writer who could both harden my shaft and melt my heart with
the very same stroke of his carefree stylus.
I am not ashamed to tell you that, after having read only thirty-three
epigrams, I frigged myself right there in the corridor. It was a
quick and clumsy burst of fluid – expressed for no other reason
than to coax into submission my insistent flesh that refused to
go down. After all, if I was to wander the halls of the Palatine
in search of a young nobleman, I was adamant that it was not to
be done with an erection. Such is only to invite trouble! (I both
shudder to think yet twitter to imagine what Martialis himself would
have made of such a confession).
at last composed myself, I set out again upon my quest. By now I
was familiar with much of the palace, and possessed of a very good
sense as to where I might locate Commodus. Happily, I was not mistaken,
and with the help of some standing guards had no trouble finding
his retinue in one of the guest quarters. I was admitted by a servant
who brought me into his master’s bedchamber, where Commodus
was already half-naked and in the midst of anointing himself with
perfumes. “A message already?” he sang mockingly. “Why,
I’m not even fresh! Which of my many admirers has sent you?”
I was bashful (although perhaps secretly gratified) at the prospect
of telling him that the answer was none of them. “It is no
message, Sir,” I said, being very deliberate about looking
steadily into the almond-shaped eyes that straddled the long nose
of his long face. “I am come from the stables, and charged
simply with returning to your person this book that was mistakenly
dropped by your staff.” At this he shot one of his boys an
angry look, and I was sorry for the poor slave who would no doubt
suffer some humiliation at a later date on account of his carelessness.
But Commodus just as quickly faced me again, smiled and held out
his hand. I placed the book in his palm, and he instantly leafed
through it in order to ensure that it had not been damaged. “This
man,” he confided to me, “ is my Virgilius. Did you
read any of it?” I wished not to suggest that I had trespassed
upon his property and so I shook my head. And he (the fop!) assumed
by it that I had no interest in literature at all: “It is
no doubt far above you, being, as it is, very base.” Thus
was I quite epigrammatically judged, insulted, and dismissed. As
I walked from his chamber I resolved to despise forever the very
pretentious Lucius Commodus.
You can be sure that I later reported the entire tale to Anaxamenos,
who laughed heartily, for it confirmed to him his suspicions about
Commodus’ character. “He is a sensualist,” said
my friend. “He lives for rose petals, sweetmeats and women.
Only on rare occasion has he a desire for boys too, and had it been
today, Antinous, be sure that you would not have returned so soon
to tell your tale. And had you indeed been delayed, it’s quite
possible that you would have given report of a considerably more
agreeable soul.” I smiled knowingly at Anaxamenos, and replied:
“If he likes his women, then he no doubt enjoys the manner
in which their bodies must receive him. And thus be it in the same
manner, I believe, that he should prefer to be received by his boys.
Therefore, if to suddenly find myself become the man’s receptacle,
I should imagine his disagreeableness much more than doubled."
And Anaxamenos laughed harder then, embraced me lovingly, and together
we set to our work until the sun had dipped a toe into the sea.
That very brief encounter with a book has rekindled for me the
fire that was previously ignited in the company of Maltinus. How
I miss the pleasures of reading for but pleasure, where there is
nothing to study or memorize or defend! To read but simply for the
lure of it; the breathy delight of words at once gleeful and garrulous,
coy and coiling, dulcet and delicious. Do you know what I dream
for, Lysicles? A library – filled to the height of a temple’s
thickest columns with the wisdom, wit, and wily ideas of every age
past, present and future. How many lifetimes do you suppose I might
require for even a cursory glance at such a treasure’s greatest
passages? And how many more must needs be added to that figure if
that I had you at my side to constantly distract me from the joys
of reading them? Too many to count, no doubt. A number so infinite
as to render me helplessly immortal. Such indeed is a dream, hey?
Thus shall I hasten to my slumber, the quicker to welcome it into
my head! A.